Event report: On track towards creating value with bio-aromatics

Enthusiasm and ambition were the key ingredients of Biorizon's Annual Event held Thursday 1 December at the Green Chemistry Campus in Bergen op Zoom. Enthusiasm on the results obtained so far, ambition regarding the challenges lying ahead. The event marked the start of ECN as Biorizon partner for the thermochemical conversion of biomass to bio-aromatics.

Starting around noon approximately 75 members of the Biorizon community and beyond were presented the latest progress in the field of biobased aromatics. During break-out sessions, lunch and drinks they seized the opportunity to discuss the potential of biobased business with each other.

Business manager Joop Groen welcomed the audience with his optimistic message that the biobased business is gaining momentum. "We're feeling like swimming downstream", he said, "we're definitely in a flow. This is going to be big business and we all have the opportunity to be the leaders in this important transition." Groen's introduction held a few pleasant surprises, among which the display of a honorable mention at the 10th Regional Innovation Award of the Assembly of European Regions. It was awarded the day before to the Province of Noord-Brabant in recognition of Biorizon's Waste2Aromatics initiative.

Groen also announced the participation of the Energy research Centre of the Netherlands ECN in Biorizon, joining research partners TNO and VITO. With the incorporation of ECN's thermochemical research towards the production of bio-aromatics, Biorizon now covers the entire research area for the development of bio-aromatics. Arnold Stokking of TNO, Walter Eevers of VITO and Martin Scheepers of ECN were happy to sign the agreement. "By participating in Biorizon we believe we can accelerate the technology development and valorization and so increase our impact on the energy transition," said Scheepers, who is director Biomass and Energy Efficiency at ECN. For Walter Eevers of VITO the partnership with ECN demonstrated the success of the Biorizon approach: "Our research is not aimed at scientific publications but at practical results with appeal to industry. I think ECN can make a major contribution here."

Moving away from oil

Following this major news Niklas Meine, Strategic Technology Manager at Covestro, presented his keynote lecture. Covestro has been one of the supporters of the Biorizon-programme right from the beginning and Meine, trained as a chemist, personally contributed to the development of the Biorizon roadmap. "The progress in the last few years is incredible" said Meine. He remarked that it does take perseverance to keep on developing alternatives for oil-based chemicals in times when the oil price is low. However, not only has committed Covestro itself to the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations, there's also a strategic aspect in moving away from oil. Meine reminded his audience that chemicals production is in fact a derivative of fuels production. So when the world decides to replace fossil fuels, the chemical industry has to be able to switch to alternative feedstocks. "That's why we keep developing alternative sources of carbon and put a lot of effort in optimizing the value chain in this respect."

Meine gave several examples of Covestro's efforts in developing sustainable, bio-based materials, especially polyurethanes. He underpinned the importance of cooperating with all partners along the value chain. Facilitating brand owners in their efforts to develop sustainable products is key, said Meine. He mentioned that when it comes to bio-based materials the Covestro customers often want all details regarding origin and processing of the feedstock. "Nobody ever is interested in such details regarding oil-based materials."

Concluding his talk Meine ascertained that especially in the field of aromatics there's a great need for sustainable, bio-based alternatives. Researching and developing them and bringing them to industrial application requires stamina and perseverance, not unlike running a marathon. "Just as it is beneficial to run a marathon together, the joint effort of Biorizon is instrumental to successfully bringing bio-aromatics to market."

On track to add value

In the subsequent presentation Jan Harm Urbanus, giving an overview of the recent Biorizon progress, stated that the ambitious goal of creating the first value chain in bio-aromatics within ten years is coming more and more within reach. "Our growing budget, just having reached 30 million euro, reflects our growing relevance. We have produced the first samples of functionalized bio-aromatics, receiving positive feedback and lots of interest. We have been able to file several patents and are now developing the first skids to produce on a multi-kilogram scale. It is clear we really add value to industry and are on track to become the number one player in bio-aromatics worldwide."

Jaap Kiel of ECN took the stage to present the state of affairs regarding the thermochemical conversion of biomass towards aromatics (horizon 1 of the Biorizon roadmap): 'We are the new kid on the block in Biorizon", said Kiel, "but we have a firm track record in gasification and pyrolysis of biomass." Kiel presented the cascading principle as key to obtain maximum value from the "lower end of the biomass portfolio". In this approach gasification may yield biofuels and green gas in combination with BTX bulk aromatics for use as chemical building blocks. In a second technology line, pyrolysis is employed to extract aromatic compounds from biomass and biomass fractions that are then turned into functional aromatics. Before the end of this decennium scaling up to 10-100 kilogram is foreseen both for the BTX bulk products and for the fractionated products. The latter will be subject to targeted functionalization and development of application concepts.

Next Ludo Diels of VITO presented the successful lignin-to-aromatics developments (horizon 3 in the Biorizon roadmap). "Lignin was always said to be a fantastic feedstock, suitable for almost everything except making money", Diels joked. "We are now underway to prove the opposite." VITO is able to purify the lignin, has control of the fractionation process and is able to separate the fractions using its patented affinity-based FunMem ceramic membranes. The next challenge is upscaling of the available processes to provide industry with testing samples. "If you want to do more than record NMR spectra and really want to test the stuff, you need volume", said Diels. He foresees production volumes of 100's of kilos in the year 2020 using newly developed pilot facilities. The recent decision of the Flanders government to support a spearhead cluster Chemistry that made bio-aromatics a strategic theme in its innovation scheme will further boost the development, expects Diels.

Jan Harm Urbanus returned to the stage to give an update on the conversion of sugars to aromatics through furans (horizon 2 in the Biorizon roadmap). Furans are a perfect starting material for a very atom efficient conversion towards single product functionalized aromatics. Already technology is available to convert fructose to furans, but using low cost feedstock (waste) poses quite a challenge. The Biorizon research now has led to quite encouraging lab results indicating the feasibility of a cost efficient conversion of waste to furans. Another important focus is on converting the furans to useful aromatic compounds. Twelve products have now been investigated and together with Biorizon partners new functionalities are being explored. Urbanus proudly reported the recent production of 300 grams of high quality aromatic acid, which is quite an accomplishment since most results reported in literature are on a milligram scale. He announced the development of a skid converting furans into aromatic compounds on a kilogram per day scale which will be available in a few months. "The main storyline here is scale up, scale up, scale up", said Urbanus, "both in the waste to furans conversion and in the Diels Alder chemistry for the synthesis of aromatics. So we can demonstrate, together with our partners, that we are really able to create value."

Getting things done

The second half of the afternoon was dedicated to five parallel 'break-out' sessions on the Biorizon projects Waste2Aromatics, Biobased Resins, BTX, SCeLiO-4B and BIO-HArT led by the respective project leaders. Here the great variety in background of the participants led to interesting discussions. Whether from large companies, start-ups, research institutes or governmental organizations, all contributors kept an open attitude, were genuinely interested and willing to share information. In the plenary recap of the session the project leaders all applauded the enthusiasm at their tables and reported useful exchanges of views and information.

This fitted perfectly with the observation of Joop Groen earlier in the day that one of the secrets of Biorizon lies in the community of like-minded people, sharing a 'getting things done' attitude. "As there are many roads leading to Rome there are many routes to produce bio-based aromatics. The challenge is to find the route where the chances for success are best. Of course we will experience failures, but we already see some diamonds. Together we will make this work."

Event Video


Please note: Biorizon Community Members can download all event presentations via the Biorizon Community Library


Credits: Harm Ikink (text), Rik Wamelink (video) & Eric de Vries (photography)

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